How The Coronavirus Pandemic Is Changing The Way We Sleep

Our sleep quality has declined rapidly since COVID-19 lockdowns started, according to data.

The pandemic has had an unusual effect on most aspects of our lives ― and perhaps unsurprisingly, our sleeping patterns have also taken a hit. Many of us have been going to bed later and sleeping later during lockdown ― but our quality of sleep has taken a turn for the worse.

Well-being psychologist Andy Cope analyzed data taken from Simba’s sleep and mood tracking app between March 8 and April 25. The results from 50,000 people in the U.K. suggest an “emotional corona-coaster” during the pandemic, as our sleep quality has gradually declined.

Wake-up moods were more erratic during the first two weeks of lockdown, and there was a “notable drop” in sleep quality from March 23 ― the day lockdown measures were announced in the U.K.

One possible reason for this is rising alcohol intake, as data from the tracking app shows we’re drinking more booze. This echoes a survey from Alcohol Change UK that found 1 in 5 people have been drinking more frequently since lockdown.

“When you drink alcohol, your body creates chemicals aldehydes and ketones,” Cope explains. “Aldehydes block the brain’s ability to generate REM sleep.”

A study from Italy shows a similar sleep quality pattern. Data from 1,310 people aged 18 to 35 years old who completed an online survey from March 24 to March 28 revealed many were going to bed later, waking up later and spending more time in bed. They were also reporting a lower sleep quality.

On average, bedtime was delayed by 40 minutes in workers and students. The restrictions had a stronger effect on wake time: workers started to wake up one hour and 13 minutes later than usual, whereas students delayed their wake time by 45 minutes. Overall, workers spent an extra 26 minutes in bed, compared to an extra five minutes for students.

People with depression, anxiety and stress were more likely to have poor sleep quality, the research found. Interestingly, the use of digital media before bed was not associated with a decline in sleep quality.

Kathryn Pinkham, founder of the Insomnia Clinic, has witnessed an uptake in issues since lockdown began. “People are getting in touch who have a sleep problem that’s got much worse during lockdown, or were fine during lockdown and now they’re sleeping really poorly,” she tells HuffPost U.K.

There are a few key ways to know if you need to improve your sleep quality, according to the The Sleep Foundation: if it takes you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep; if you wake up more than once in the night; if you find yourself staying awake for more than 20 minutes after waking up in the middle of the night; or if you spend less than 85% of your time in bed asleep.

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So, what else is messing with our sleep quality?

It’s no surprise sleep has been affected, Pinkham says, because so many things about lockdown “are the antithesis of what you should do for sleep.”

People aren’t getting up as early as they usually would because they don’t have to commute or do the school run. “They’re not setting their alarms and they’re waking up later,” she says, “and the problem is, if you wake up later, you don’t develop a strong enough drive to sleep well the next night.”

Lockdown also means people are spending more time at home, bored, inactive, and not getting outdoors as much. “They’re not as tired and their drive to sleep is not as high as it needs to be ― so then they’re getting into bed and struggling to sleep or finding the quality of sleep is very fractured,” she says.

Andrew Bagshaw, a sleep expert from the Centre for Human Brain Health at University of Birmingham, believes the lack of schedule is a key issue. “The whole life schedule has changed and that’s maybe the thing that’s having the most impact,” he explains. Put simply, again, we’re not tired enough.

“We're not as tired and our drive to sleep is not as high as it needs to be.”

- Kathryn Pinkham, founder of the Insomnia Clinic

Bagshaw points out that in the Italian study, sleep quality was worse in those who scored highly for anxiety, depression and stress – and lockdown can exacerbate these issues. “Even if they’re not diagnosed, I think there’s a lot of variability,” he says. “Some people are coping OK with this change and some are coping less well.”

Pinkham agrees there’s more uncertainty, stress and worry, which is impacting our sleep. “When we go to bed it’s the perfect time to worry. The problem is, if we get into a habit of waking up at 3 a.m. and worrying for a couple of hours, it’s exactly that ― it becomes a habit,” she says.

“So then the next night you wake up, you do it again. It’s almost like you’re telling your body clock: this is what I want to do at 3 a.m.”

How can we improve our sleep quality?

Find yourself lying awake in the early hours worrying? Pinkham recommends writing before bed. Spend 20 minutes with a pen and paper, and write whatever is on your mind: the things you didn’t get done today, the things you need to do tomorrow, the things you’re worried about.

“Go back to setting your alarm again,” she suggests. Wake up earlier, go to bed later, and build up your “sleep drive” once more. Stay out of your bedroom in the day as much as you can. Natural light is important for the body’s circadian system ― and therefore your sleep ― so getting outside more could also help you fall asleep faster.

Bagshaw suggests people should focus on scheduling, and setting a routine. “Normally it’s clear when you need to go to bed because you have to get up at a certain time,” he says.

Try sticking to a consistent bed time, having a consistent wake time, and ensuring you have a period where you wind down and relax as much as possible before you go to bed.

This story originally appeared in HuffPost U.K.

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